South America so far.....
We flew from Panama City over night and arrived in Buenos Aires early in the morning. We scored an awesome hotel deal on lastminute.com and ended up staying in a downtown hotel for half the price of a hostel. We spent a few days here just wandering around, drinking malbec red wine and eating delicious steak. The first night we also went out to watch a tango show which was amazing and we were on a front row table. Buenos Aires is an awesome city and we both so want to go back again!
From Buenos Aires we took an amazing bus 18 hours to Puerto Iguazu on the border of Brazil. The bus had huge seats, we watched movies and were served food, wine and champagne. Jas loved it so much, that even after 18 hours, he didn't want to get off!! At Puerto Iguazu, we quickly found a hostel and headed out to the Brazillian side of the falls. It was a speedy process to get over the border and didn't take long at all to get to the falls. We spent a couple of hours wandering around the tracks, getting lots of different views of the falls and the most impressive of all was right at the end - they have built a platform out over the edge of the falls so you can walk right out and get soaked by them. Amazing. Afterwards, we headed back over to Argentina.
The next day, we checked out the Argentina side of the falls. You get a totally different view from each side. From Brazil, you get a broad view of the falls and can appreciate the size of them. The Argentina side is much more up close and personal. You walk out over the top of them, and there are countless tracks going alongside, over and under heaps of falls of varying sizes. We spent most of the day wandering around and loved the place. Iguazu is definately a highlight of the trip so far.
After Iguazu, we were headed for Rio. After the amazing bus to Iguazu, we weren't at all fazed by the 24 hour bus journey to Rio, but unfortunately we were not in luck and were massively ripped off and ended up on a s*** local bus with no food, that stopped every hour or two - so also ended up taking more like 27 hours. Disastor! So we were wrecked by the time we got to Rio and needed some sleep. After napping we headed out to explore Rio, and weren't overly impressed with it. We wandered around the city centre and Copacabana beach and got a feed in our first "kilo restaurant" - a buffet where you load up on food and then pay by the weight of your plate. Pretty tasty! That night we went out for dinner to a little local restaurant with little plastic tables out on the street. We made friends with a couple of crazy old guys at the table next to us - although conversation was a bit confusing with us speaking no Portugese and them speaking only a little English. Luckily, Portugese is close enough to Spanish for us to get a general gist of what they were saying!
The next day was Jas' birthday, so we headed up to check out the giant Jesus statue. We caught the little train up the hill in beautiful sunshine, but of course, as soon as we got to the top, the clouds closed in, completely removing the view! So we sat at the cafe and drank some beer until the clouds cleared. It was an impressive sight when they did! Up close Rio is a bit of a disappointment - very run down and dirty - but from above, it's breathtaking. White beaches and giant steep green hills, with the city fitted in amongst it. That night we went out for some drinks and watched a little band for a bit, a pretty nice and chilled night out.
Our next stop was Salvador for Carnival, but our flight was out of Sao Paulo, so we caught a fancy 6 hour bus down there and spent the night in a not bad hostel there. We had some minor dramas getting out to the airport the next day, but eventually we made it on to the plane and were in Salvador in no time. We instantly liked Salvador - it was hot and sunny, with great beaches and an awesome vibe. It took us a while to find our hostel, but were surprised by how great it was when we did. It was literally on the side street next to the starting point of the Carnival parades and had a great little balcony on the street to hang out on. Carnival itself was pretty overwhelming. Salvador is not a safe place, so we went out with only a small amount of money on us at nighttime - no camera, no cards, no jewellary. The parades are amazing, they go for hours, starting at around 7pm and going until sunrise. You can buy tickets for "blocos" which means you get a tshirt which let's you follow a particular float in a roped off area. The tickets started at over $100 a night, and we didn't see the point as you can either follow a float from outside the ropes, or stand in the one spot and see heaps of floats - both for free! The other option is buy a tshirt for a "camarote" which are like bars with balconies overlooking the street - so you can watch the parade from a safe point (the crowds get pretty rough and were a bit scary at times!) and they include a free bar. But these cost upwards of $250 to $500 a night, so there was no way we could afford them!! We spent most of our time either standing in the street watching the parades go past, or hanging out on the hostel balcony drinking with the other backpackers. We have never met so many Australians outside Australia in one spot, for some reason Salvador attracts them!
We couldn't get a flight out of Salvador the day after Carnival, so we ended up leaving a day early which was annoying as we had paid for the hostel already, but we couldn't afford to stay an extra day. So after many flight mix ups and delays, we eventually got to Santiago in Chile. Unfortunately we didn't have a lot of time to spare, and Chile is expensive, so we only got to spend one day wandering around Santiago. It seems like a really nice city though, and we both definately want to head back to see more of southern Argentina and Chile another time.
From Santiago we caught a 24 bus up to San Pedro de Atacama, which is in the Atacama Desert, just before the border of Bolivia, at an altitude of 2400m. The bus itself was ok, but about an hour and a half away from San Pedro the bus stopped for a bit at a mining town called Calama. Here a couple of local guys got on and stole Jas' bag. So that was a bit of a disaster. Luckily, all the important stuff was in my bag, but Jas did still lose his iPod, iPhone and all of our chargers. Once we got to San Pedro we had a stressfull few hours trying to get used to the lack of air, while running around canceling cards, making a police statement and lots of emailing.
From San Pedro, we booked ourselves on a 3 day 4x4 tour from there to Uyuni in Bolivia - crossing the Atacama desert and the salt flats of Boliva. The company we booked with had 12 people leaving that day - so 2 cars. The bus journey out to the Bolivian border was amazing. We drove for an hour through nothing to a tiny little hut which was apparently the Bolivian immigration office! Here we had lunch before jumping in the cars. The tour was absolutely amazing. The guide took us across the spectacular landscape, stopping at lakes of varying colours, with flamingos and llamas running around. There were huge mountains surrounding us everywhere, some with snow, some without. On the first day we went from 2400m, to around 4800m in only a few hours - so jas and I suffered real bad altitude sickness. Blinding headaches, no appetite, throwing up etc. It was pretty painfull, but we followed the locals and chewed coca leaves and drank as much coca tea as we could get out hands on. Thankfully, by the second day, we were both feeling heaps better. The last day of the trip was by far the most impressive. We drove out on the salt flats (the largest in the world) and took heaps of silly photos. Back in uyuni, at the end of the trip, we had some money dramas as the only ATM in the town was broken, but we eventually found another bank that let us have a cash advance, so we had some pizza and beers with the other guys from our trip before jumping in an overnight bus to La Paz. The bus journey itself was an adventure - a 540 km journey, 180 km of which is unsealed....and it's rainy season! At around midnight we were all woken up with a fright as the bus bottomed out while attempting to cross a river! So we were stuck for about 40 minutes until another bus pulled us out...then we got a flat in the process! So it was about an hour before we got moving again!
We weren't sure what to expect of La Paz, as we heard various things about it - good and bad. We've been here 2 days now and it's an impressive city. It's about 3600 m above sea level and is set in a narrow valley, with the city climbing the steep walls. Very impressive to look at, but a nightmare to walk around - steep hills and a lack of air at high altitude is exhausting!!! We are now starting to understand how difficult the inca trail is going to be (and in only 2 weeks, eek!!) We also checked out the San Pedro prison made famous by the book "marching powder". Unfortuantely, they don't run the prison tours anymore as they got too dangerous, but it's right in the centre of the city, so we went for a look from the outside. It's a mental place - we saw lots of little kids coming out all dressed up ready for school. Crazy!!
So now we have another day here, before heading to Lake Titicaca - the largest high altitude lake in the world.